We Have Agents In The Field

By cjohnson | March 27, 2006 3:44 pm

Two things.

shopping basket market(1) So on my wanderings through the Hollywood Farmer’s market yesterday (see right an earlier picture of the sort of loot you can get there), I decided to stop at my favourite tamale stand for lunch. While eating the tamale sitting on the curb, I met a very interesting person, Ysanne Spevack, (who was also sitting on the curb, chowing down on some excellent jerk chicken and fried plantains from the stand opposite) who’s an expert on the organic food industry, a mine of information about it and generally fun to talk to. See the amazing website that she edits and helps write, or her eight books, for more information about organic food. Excellent!

(2) Well, curbside eating turned into tea in a nearby cafe to talk further (it’s not often someone actually wants to [join me in] listen to me droning on and on and on about public transport and bikes, gardening and drought-tolerant plant varieties, etc) and then we were joined by a friend of hers. Turns out she’s a model. The reason that is interesting is because she’s actually trained as a scientist and engineer, did research in medical imaging at UCSF for a while before moving into modelling. She says that there are others (Physicists and the like) in the industry too (not necessarily modelling, but….).

I like the idea of this. Recall my oft-repeated-on-this-blog quest for better public understanding of science, and more familiarity with scientists and science on the part of the “person on the street” (as a means to the former) (see e.g., here and here). Well, the idea that there’s a secret underground of scientists infiltrating various jobs that we’re not expected to occupy is an excellent one! (Will work it into that novel/screenplay/whatever that I’ll try to get around to writing one day.)

Scientist sleeper-cells. Hiding in plain sight as models, supermodels, actors and actresses, hollywood superstars, leaders of European countries (oh, wait, that one’s true right now – see Germany), TV chat-show hosts, game-show hosts, rappers, basketball players, etc.

This idea could have legs….


P.S. Some of this happens more often than you think. I of course thought of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is/was a physicist. There are a number of examples of rock stars who were scientists, and there’s my new friend who’s a model and former research scientist. Oh, and I just remembered Danica McKellar, who’s done some fine work in mathematics at UCLA, and is also an actress, as NPR keeps reminding us (good lord, do you remember Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, way back in the late 80s and early 90s? That was her……how about that. My, how time flies….).

I’m sure you can do way better than me with other examples of this less-celebrated-but-really-important sort. The best examples will be ones that combine going far with their science (beyond undergraduate, say…) with a profession where scientists are not expected to be showing up a lot. So a phd mathematician working in insurance is not going to blow my skirt up, but if Heidi Klum, Tyson Beckford, or Michael Bergin turn out to have a background in research into molecular biology, or fusion, or flag manifolds, then we should be jumping up and down about this! Bring on those examples!

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com wolfgang

    Art Garfunkel has a masters degree in mathematics …

  • JustAnotherInfidel

    Does this represent another breakdown in the law of averages?

  • damtp_dweller

    There have always been physicists and mathematicians in public life. The first prime minister of the Irish Republic, Eamonn De Valera, was an applied mathematician (there’s a funny story in MTW’s big black book about a conversation De Valera had with John Wheeler about how octonions managed to keep De Valera sane the night before he was due to be executed by the British army). That’s just in Ireland, one of the smallest countries in the EU.

    And let’s not mention Geena Davis…

  • Rien

    The singer in Bad Religion has a PhD in zoology from Cornell…

  • micah

    Ahmed Chalabi has a PhD in math (group theory, IIRC) from the University of Chicago.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Of course, we all remember Britney Spears’ lectures…

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Phil Bredesen, Governor of Tennessee, has a MS in Physics, I believe.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Oh, The other prominent example of a European leader of this sort is Margaret Thatcher. Research chemist for a while, if I recall. I don’t know if she got a phd in it or not.

    Keep ‘em coming folks!


  • http://cyclequark.wordpress.com/ Mike

    Saw this topic before at Radioactive Banana and just today she followed up with entry.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Mike, I see. Thanks.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Well, Mike, it is not really exaclty the same topic. there’s no shock value in a science fiction writer or other writer about science actually having done some science in the past (although wouldn’t it be nice if the latter were more common?)….what I want is what I said in the last lines. For full “no way!” exclamations, we want contributions to scientific knowledge on the one hand, and on the other hand, now in a career in fill-in-the-blank-career-not-commonly-associated-with-first-part-of-sentence.

    For example, what if Jeff Goldblum actually was the incredibly annoying nerdy scientist-type he always. plays. in. every. movie. (Or does it just seem that way?)



  • http://organicfood.co.uk Ysanne

    The entire band line up of Queen all went to Imperial… same as Clifford

  • ME

    Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, got part way through a PhD in astronomy, (he co-authored an article on the motion of dust particles). I’m sure we can all make our own jokes about looking at stars vs. being one…

  • Tim M

    A funny “modelling” anecdote I heard recently was from a scientist in a computational field. He met a new graduate student and asked her what she did before coming to the program. Her response: “modeling.” The scientist asked what kind specifically – X or Y? Her response: “dresses.”

  • Aaron Bergman

    And Brian May wrote one of the few songs I know of about special relativity, ’69.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Ysanne: -Yes (except Freddie)…I used to practice guitar with my band in the same practice room in Biet Quad where Brian May and the rest of Queen used to practice!

    Aaron: -It’s ’39, I believe (“69″ is probably the title of some other song you’re thinking of) ….. I’m actually planning a post on that, because I have used it as an exam question a number of times in the past.


  • Aaron Bergman

    Oops. You’re right. There’s “Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams, I suppose.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    And I also built my own electric guitar as a teenager, but there the similarity between myself and Brian ends. He wears his hair a bit longer than I do, for example.


  • http://www.radioactive-banana.com/blog Kristin

    Well, Mike Judge certainly went far afield of physics in creating Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, and Office Space! Ted Rall is more underground, admittedly. Of course the science writers thing is less surprising, but they still counted according to my rubric.

    Anyway, engineers have it over physicists in terms of going over the wall and influencing the greater culture, it looks like. They can claim Montel Williams, Mr. Bean, the lead singer of Boston, Herbie Hancock, Boris Yeltsin, Jimmy Carter, Alexander Calder, Leonid Brezhnev, Scott Adams…. They do have an advantage in terms of absolute numbers to start with, admittedly.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Kristin: Don’t get me wrong…..I think your post and rubric were valid questions too. Science and writing are very very important. I was just trying to look for the much more unusual career paths …..

    Ah yes, those Engineers….



  • http://www.radioactive-banana.com/blog Kristin

    Hey, and I did learn about Sandra Tsing Loh right here at Cosmic Variance! She didn’t always do science programs, either. I’d say her career path was pretty unusual and far afield of physics.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Yes! A good Example!


  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Clifford, interesting thought, and I’ll see if I can think up of some names. But in the meantime, I was wondering whether “the idea could have legs” is an unconscious something following from “supermodels”. :-)

  • joseph

    You can also get math tutoring from Danica McKellar at http://www.danicamckellar.com/

  • http://www.pyracantha.com Pyracantha

    But hey, wait a minute.
    First: Do we want scientists to be judged and appreciated for the same criteria that we appreciate pop stars or models? Like, Ms. Scientist not only is brilliant, but she’s gorgeous too?? That’s just more hype that an aspiring (girl) scientist would have to live up to.
    Next: Wouldn’t that be a total waste of talent and long hours of hard work for a high-ranking PhD scientist to do something like be a pop star? Is THAT what her parents sent her to Harvard/Yale/UCLA for? Anything less than academia, is a low-class letdown and a shame.
    At least, that’s what my parents imply with me.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford


    You said:

    Wouldn’t that be a total waste of talent and long hours of hard work for a high-ranking PhD scientist to do something like be a pop star? Is THAT what her parents sent her to Harvard/Yale/UCLA for? Anything less than academia, is a low-class letdown and a shame.
    At least, that’s what my parents imply with me.

    I don’t think that. I don’t want to have much to do with people who do. I’m sorry if your parents taught you to think that way. I’m hoping that you’re joking….(?)



  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I met Feynman’s first (or was it second) Ph.D. student. He said the most important thing he learned from Feynman was how to be happy. (Physics wasn’t the most important thing in the world, and he wasn’t doing physics.)

    Pyracantha, I can understand that parents will be really puzzled and worried if after a PhD and all that effort, one turned around and did something totally unrelated. One should talk to them and explain. But not being able to change out of some notion that one wasted time, it is low-class, a shame, etc., is the opposite of wisdom.

  • Frumious B.

    That so-called amazing website is filled with misinformation. For one thing, vitamin content of food is set by genetics. Organically grown vegetables are not more nutritious than conventionally grown.

    First the acupunture, now organics. Is this a science blog or a pseudoscience blog?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Frumious B. Thanks for your wisdom. Please go away and find a blog more up to your standards.

    It is so easy and, frankly, tedious to find some way of tearing something down. It is much more impressive to show that you can build something. Give it a try.

    Cheers, and maybe goodbye (?)


  • http://optics.unige.ch/peter/home_peter.html Peter Armitage

    Although not a phycist herself, Oliva Newton-John’s grandfather was Max Born! …which puts “Let’s get Physical” into a new context doesn’t it?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    It would be interesting to examine the science, here are some:

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun
  • Cathy

    I don’t know about Heidi Klum, but I seem to recall that Cindy Crawford was an engineering major. So there!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Great! That’s very encouraging. Probing further….did she do research beyond UG level, ‘cos that would be excellent!

    (Wait….I don’t understand the “so there!”. I’m hoping that there are more examples than commonly suspected…. it’s supposed to be a good thing. I’m not going into this discussion saying that it is impossible, just that it is commonly percieved as rather improbable.)



  • SteveM

    Dolph Lundren was supposed to be doing a Phd in chemical engineering at MIT, and had degrees already from Sweden and Austrailia having won various scholarships. But he got the part of the Russian boxing machine “Ivan Drako” in the film “Rocky IV” opposite Sylvester Stallone, and then had a film career playing heavies ever since. I like this particular example since I am an athlete too with a scientific/technical background. Actually, I think “Brain and Brawn” is MIT’s motto?

  • Pingback: String Theory’s Star on the Rise | Cosmic Variance()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »